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Makowski pupils honor a superhero - their principal, who died too young

Every child has a favorite superhero, admired for the special powers used to help others.

That could be iron strength or invisibility. Scaling walls or flying.

Or, for Brandon Dobbs, teaching children. His hero is William A. Boatwright Jr., the principal of Stanley M. Makowski Early Childhood Center who died unexpectedly last month.

“He always pushed the kids to do their best in school,” said Brandon, a fourth-grader.

Students and teachers honored their leader’s memory Friday.

The usually bustling elementary school started the morning with a moment of silence.

Teachers shared memories on the morning announcements. Students, dressed as their favorite superheroes, paraded through the hallways, a tribute to the principal’s love of comics.

“He was a wonderful man,” said fourth-grader Mekhi Chambers. “I don’t know how to explain it. I can’t stop thinking of him.”

One class wore capes with the letter “B” on the back.

“OK, let’s go Super Boatwrights,” their teacher directed them.

The children held back tears to share stories of the man who inspired them to be better students. Makowski students are also planning several projects to raise money for a scholarship fund for Boatwright’s two young children.

“We wanted to help Mr. Boatwright’s kids,” said fourth-grader Brian Paige.

Boatwright was one of the most highly regarded principals in the Buffalo Public Schools, and believed to be the only one in recent memory who died while in the position. He was 41 when he died April 29 of a blood clot.

Under his leadership, Makowski, which serves about 800 students in pre-kindergarten to fourth grades, made significant gains. Reading and math test scores rose. Students showed enough improvement for the school to be removed from a state watch list and placed in good standing.

The gains came from the high expectations he set for students, teachers and himself – standards evident in the fact that while proud of the progress, Boatwright wanted to do better.

“As long as you worked hard for him, he worked hard for you,” said teacher Alexandra Pinelli.

“He makes me want to do more as an educator,” said teacher Alethea Mark.

Boatwright, one of a handful of African-American male principals in the city schools, was also known for the connections he made with students.

“The kids responded very well to him,” said Holly Staley, who is now serving as acting principal. “He worked hard to get where he was, and the kids can see that. He was a good role model for them.”

A good role model and a mentor, who understood the complex challenges his students face because he overcame many of them himself.

Boatwright grew up in one of the poorest, toughest parts of Rochester, a neighborhood plagued by drugs, crime, poverty and violence.

“It was the roughest,” said his childhood friend Arkee Allen, a Rochester principal who came to Friday’s tribute. “He never got caught in that lane.”

As a teenager, when his friends were mostly interested in girls, Boatwright was more concerned about making sure his clothes were ironed for school the next morning. Even as an adult, he was always impeccably dressed, except for the one day a year when he traded his slacks for candy cane pajama pants to read “The Polar Express” to his pre-school students.

Boatwright was fortunate to have two parents at home growing up, unlike some of his peers, and followed their rules, even when he looked like a nerd for it. He attended school through a special program that allows children from the city of Rochester to go to school in the suburbs. He then went on to obtain both a bachelors and a masters degree from St. John Fisher College. At the time of his death, he was finishing a doctoral degree at the University at Buffalo.

He had a sharp focus and drive that rubbed off on his friends.

“He was my example,” Allen said.

Allen remembers that Boatwright pushed him to think about college, and continued challenging him every step of the way. The two held each other accountable with weekly phone calls, and Allen knew his friend wouldn’t be impressed unless he could share a new experience or accomplishment. The healthy competition to impress and outdo each other kept the two young men motivated.

“He could always see the future brighter than any of us,” Allen said.

Boatwright saw that same bright future for his students, and aimed to support them in overcoming the challenges they might face becoming successful.

For many of his students, that includes living in rough neighborhoods like the one he grew up in.

“I have first graders who come to school angry because of what they’ve experienced,” he told a reporter earlier this year.

He helped them turn that anger into strength and courage.

“It’s great to see these kids and their emotions. I feel like he was loved,” Allen said “I hope the kids know you have these things that happen and you learn from them. I hope his example helps them do that.”

Now, his death poses another potential struggle for the children who loved him, and those who knew Boatwright best will help them navigate in his memory.

In teacher Lisa Heide’s classroom, that means turning her friend and mentor’s death into a lesson on character, his best traits offering a model for students.

Respectful. Professional. Loyal.

A leader. A mentor. An educator.

“He left his legacy as a great principal here,” she said. “This is my way of showing my students how he really was a superhero.”